The Strength of Weakness
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The Strength of Weakness

2 Corinthians 12:1  (ID: 2245)

As fallen creatures, we tend to think that we are most effective when we are strongest. The Bible, however, reminds us that any spiritual strengths we have are gifts from God and should not become a basis for boasting. Like Paul, we must learn to accept that our weaknesses can and will be used by God. Alistair Begg warns us not to rely on our own power but instead to embrace our utter dependence on our heavenly Father.

Series Containing This Sermon

The Pastor’s Study, Volume 3

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 23003

The Basics of Pastoral Ministry, Volume 2

Character Matters Selected Scriptures Series ID: 28402

Sermon Transcript: Print

Can I invite you to take your Bibles and turn with me to 2 Corinthians chapter 12? Two Corinthians 12. I want to read the first ten verses. And in turning to the twelfth chapter of 2 Corinthians, we are towards the end of a section that has really begun at 10:1, where Paul has found it necessary for the strength and well-being of the believers to whom he’s writing in Corinth to defend not so much himself but rather to defend the nature of the gospel and to make much of Christ in doing so. And so he takes on this posture of rebutting the “super-apostles” by giving them, as it were, a dose of their own medicine. And there is an irony and a sort of veiled sarcasm which runs throughout all of this section, and unless we understand that, then we could read it wrongly.

So, we pick it up in 12:1:

“I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows—was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say.

“To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”


The Futility of Boasting

Now, I want to say that I’m not sure that I actually like pastors’ conferences. At best I’m ambivalent about them. Oh yes, I enjoyed the singing; I do enjoy the singing. I’m helped by the teaching as I have the opportunity to sit under it. And as a Scot, I’m absolutely thrilled when there are giveaways. It’s hard for me to see those things flying into the hands of other people, but I’m working on it. We are the people who invented the limbo dance, with a Scotsman in Glasgow trying to get into a pay toilet. So I’m troubled by those giveaways. I am. I must confess it.

But let me tell you what troubles me, really, most of all: it is the sneaking suspicion that I might not be the only one who at pastors’ conferences is guilty of making my circumstances sound better or worse than they really are. I’ve a sneaking suspicion I may not be alone. Of course, as pastors, over time we’ve learnt very skillful ways to deaden the pain of the dagger going in. But nevertheless, there is some strange perversity about us that finds, when once confronted by a jury of our peers, there is this dreadful temptation to try and make things out to be better than they are or, depending on the company in which we find ourselves, to be actually worse than they are. Choose your poison.

It’s the kind of thing that happens when, on the golf course, you have hit your tee shot, and your companion hits his, and you say to him, “Great shot.” He replies, “I didn’t see it land.” You respond, “You’re in the fairway.” You follow it up by saying, “You saw my ball, didn’t you?” “Yes,” he said, “I saw your ball; I can see your ball.” “Well,” you say, “don’t look that far, because you’re just up there behind me.” And there’s just something about that “behind me” which makes us feel at least half an inch taller.

Of course, maybe I’m baring my soul and making myself out to be a dreadful creep, and that none of you experience this, but some of you may have wandered into the dining room with your tray, looking for somewhere to park. And you find yourself listening, just to get a flavor for the tables that are around you, immediately avoiding the table where the sounds, the adjectives that are coming out are like “terrific,” “great,” “fantastic,” “never been better,” “seven services,” “great crowds,” “multiple impact,” “significant strategy.” You can’t get past the table fast enough, because you know that your ability to top that is going to be sorely tried. However, you don’t want to sit down with the “Woe is me” brigade either—the gentleman who is saying in a loud voice, “I, only I, am left.” You mention to yourself on the way past, “I wish he was the only who was left,” but he’s surrounded by a contingency of individuals who love to sing, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.” And so you still haven’t found a seat, till you eventually find one of the speakers, who is probably sitting alone, having discharged all the duties of his ministry, but not in a manner that would have endeared him to anybody at all. So eventually you just call your wife and ask her to come and pick you up—but at the far end, not out under the arch.

You see, there’s really just something that unsettles me when we all get together in one place. I could never really put my finger on it until the week after Easter, when I had the privilege of being with an Irishman at a conference in England. As we were driving back to the airport—or being driven back to the airport—in London, we were sharing with one another, as we do, notes, quotes, and anecdotes.

This man, who had been particularly useful in the course of a few days, pointed out to me that in the rural area in Ireland where he was ministering, he had a number of farmers who often blessed him with their singularly pithy logic. I said, “Give me an example.” “Well,” he said, “one of them came to me not so long ago, and he said to me, ‘Pastor, you pastors remind me of dung.’” Now, the pastor was not immediately blessed by this reference, nor was he smart enough to let it pass and move on, so he inquired, “Just how are you using this metaphor?” he said. “Well,” said the farmer, “when dung is evenly spread over a wide area, it is tremendously effective. But when you get it together in a huge, big pile…”

So, let none among us think of ourselves more highly than we ought. Some of your congregation were absolutely right in their assessment. But it took a farmer from Ireland to let it dawn on us.

Of course, that’s a very Pauline kind of statement, isn’t it? If you’re a King James man. There are a few left. I don’t happen to be one of them, but there are a few left. You remember Philippians 3? “All of the things that I once boasted about”—“all I once held dear, built my life upon”[1]—“I count them now as dung,”[2] he said. We cleaned it up in the [RSV] to “refuse.” Doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it? So just leave it the way it is: “I count them as dung for the sake of knowing Jesus Christ.” So the Irish farmer made a fairly graphic statement, reminding each of us that when we’re tempted to think of ourselves more highly than we ought, when we’re tempted to do one-upmanship with one another, either on the down side of the curve or on the ascending part of the parabola, the fact of the matter is, we’re out of line.

And so, in the dying moments of what I’m sure has been for you a very demanding day, I want to encourage you to think with me for a moment or two about the strength of weakness. About the strength of weakness. For it is to the words of Paul, as we’ve seen them here in 2 Corinthians 12, that we turn, in order that each of us would be reminded of the absolute futility of boasting; that each of us would be confronted by what Paul affirms in his teaching and reveals in his life—namely, the fact that usefulness and weakness are constant companions in the apostle’s ministry. Indeed, I think it would be possible for us to argue that there is a direct correlation between a pressing sense of personal inadequacy and weakness and God’s divine enduement transforming weakness into sufficient strength so as to be useful for his glory. If we had bumped into the apostle Paul in the coffee line, he would have been happy to speak of his weaknesses—and the reason being that he had discovered that when he was so obviously weak, he was most surprisingly strong.

Now, my fellow pastors, let’s get this clear as a bottom line before we go forward: the great tyranny of the age—one of them—is to seduce us into thinking that we will be at our most useful when we actually are as strong as we can possibly be. When we have managed to conquer all of these challenges. When the irreconcilable war against the Evil One is being won dramatically by us. When our family and when our neighbors and when our friends and our congregations all have occasion to say, “Now there’s a very strong individual.” And indeed, much that is offered up to us as an incentive for future progress, as an indication to us that we are actually managing and more than managing, finds itself falling on the strong side, not on the weak side.

Usefulness and weakness are constant companions in the apostle Paul’s ministry.

So then that ought to cause us to at least consider this question: Does the church on the edge of the twenty-first century in the Western world have it right and the apostle Paul in the first century wrong, or is it possible that the church on the edge of the twenty-first century needs to be confronted again by the truth of the apostle from the first?

Now, I hope it’ll be an encouragement to many of us. Because we’ve come to an event like this hoping that there won’t be too many of those discussions about how many and how big and how effective. Hoping as well that we won’t get involved just with a group of people who are bemoaning everything and wishing that they could find some other reasonable way to fill in their days, but somehow or another, hoping that God will meet with us: in a seminar, in a quiet place, in a song, in the word of a friend, in an arm around the shoulder, in a drawing awareness of the fact that Paul teaches here—namely, the strength of weakness.

The Challenges of Paul’s Detractors

Now, as I said earlier, the wider context really needs to be understood if we’re going to come to terms with this. And the context, as I said, begins, really, back at the beginning of chapter 10—and I don’t want to drag you all the way through this, but I do want at least to let you know I’ve done my homework, and thereby to give you a little homework to do as well.

Paul and his companions were clearly on the receiving end of accusations and insinuations. If you carefully read chapter 10, you will discover that his detractors were accusing him of a number of things. Let me just give you a flavor of it. For example, in 10:1 they were accusing him of being cowardly. They said, “You know, Paul’s a coward. When he’s face-to-face with you, he’s nothing. When he’s gone, oh, he’s very powerful then. But he doesn’t amount to much up close.” They were accusing him of being worldly, in verse 2. They were accusing him and his companions, in verse 7, of being only superficially attached to the Lord Jesus. They were accusing them in 10:12 of being second-class servants of Christ—hence his response: “We do not dare to classify or [commend] ourselves with some who commend themselves.” These individuals were not only writing their résumés, but they were actually writing their own references for their résumés. And it was a foolish thing, said Paul, for them to commend themselves: “When they measure themselves by themselves,” when they “compare themselves with themselves, they are [just] not wise.”

You see, that’s why when you go on the driving range on your own, you might convince yourself that you’re actually ready for the Tour—provided no one else shows up! But a man that shows up with one arm and a bad eye and a crooked hip will prove to you in a few shots that you’re nowhere ready for the Tour. You’re not even ready for a second bucket of balls; you’re just ready for going home. But if you compare yourself to yourself—and this is an autobiographical illustration here—when you compare yourself to yourself, you’re not wise. You may convince yourself that the speed it takes you to run three miles is sufficient for you to qualify for international athletics. But, of course, put yourself up against the standard of international athletics, and you’ll realize that the speed with which you run three miles qualifies you for early entry to a nursing home.

Now, that’s what he says. And in verse 18 he makes the point quite strikingly. Look at what he says: “It[’s] not the one who commends himself who is approved, but [it is] the one whom the Lord commends.” See, the great temptation, you come to these conferences, are “I gotta make my point here, you know. I gotta make my stab when I get a chance, you know. I’ve only got one shot around the table to say who I am and where I’ve been and what I’ve done, you know, so I need to be ready to set it forward so that the people will remember me.” “What you [and I] say about [ourselves] means nothing in God’s work. It’s what God says about [us] that makes the difference.”[3] And yet what a strange tyranny it is that we are seduced into believing that what we say about ourselves really matters, and actually, what other people have to say about us really matters too.

And many of us are paralyzed in our usefulness in pastoral ministry because we’re actually more concerned about what our people have to say about us than we are concerned about what God will say about us—that Paul, when he writes again to the Corinthians, says, “I don’t care if I’m judged by you or by any human court. My conscience is clear. That doesn’t make me innocent, but at least I can sleep at night.”[4] Why does he say that? Is that false bravado? No, because he understands that the real test to which he’s heading is before the bar of God’s judgment. Do you want your people to like you, or do you want to lead your people?

Now, none of us are immune from this. When we’re tempted to rely too much on what others are saying, we should just think about the kind of things that others say. At that same conference, a week after Easter, I was in the bathroom, in my usual taxi-and-hold position prior to preaching, on the second day of the event. There was a gentlemen who was in a similar position beside me, and he mentioned that he had really enjoyed and been helped by my study the previous day. He said something like this: “I really enjoyed your study yesterday.” And before I could get a chance to offer him congratulations on being such a perceptive character, he followed up by saying, “My friends, on the other hand…” And I said, “Oh, wait a minute.” “My friends, on the other hand, didn’t think much of it. “Oh,” I said, “well, thank you. It was nice meeting you in here, and let me go and try again.” And as I went out the door, I could hear him saying, “I tried to get them to come back, but I don’t believe they’re coming.”

Well, what are you gonna do? Curl up in a ball and die? Who cares? Who cares? These people “compare themselves with themselves,” but “it’s what God says … that makes the difference.” What does God say about you and me tonight? Don’t you love that thing—having mentioned Wheaton earlier on—don’t you love the thought of Jim Elliot as a young twenty-one-, twenty-two-, twenty-three-year-old man, saying that although he wanted to get a bachelor’s degree from Wheaton College, what he really wanted to get was his AUG, from 2 Timothy 2:15—that he wanted to “study to shew [him]self approved unto God.”[5]

Well, that’s in chapter 10. When you get into chapter 11, you find that the apostle’s opponents are boasting about some other things. They’re boasting in verse 22 about their Jewishness, and so he responds to that: “Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I.” But they’re not only boasting about their Jewishness; they’re boasting about the fact of their service for Christ. And so he says, “Well, let me speak to you about my service for Christ.” And off he goes down that road. Peterson, in The Message, paraphrases this quite effectively, I think, and picks up the irony and the vague sarcasm in Paul’s approach. Listen to how he paraphrases 11:17–18: “I didn’t learn this kind of talk from Christ. Oh, no, it’s a bad habit I picked up from the three-ring preachers that are so popular these days.”[6]

Paul recognizes he’s surrounded by people who regard themselves as super, who regard themselves as being able to take people into different dimensions and into further leagues of the discovery of God—so much so that they are the detractors to the ministry of this mighty apostle, he who bears in his own body the marks of Christ.[7] And he says, “As I engage in this kind of thing, as I respond to them, as I must for the cause of the gospel, I really am speaking like a fool.[8] This is the kind of thing that you hear these crazy preachers saying when they draw attention to themselves all the time.” And once again, as in 10:17, he reaches the same conclusion here at the end of chapter 11: “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.”[9]

Now, this is not some kind of weird false modesty. This is not Uriah Heap in David Copperfield. For there is a perversity about us as well when we try and make ourselves sound self-deprecating when it’s actually just another form of exaltation, when it’s another form of pride, when it’s another way of just drawing attention to ourselves. If we can’t impress people on the high end, then why don’t we go for the low ground and see if we can’t take them on the low road to Scotland, as it were?

“If you want to boast,” he says, “If I’m going boast, I’m going to boast of the things that show my weakness.” And then Luke gives us a wonderful little cameo there in verses 31 and 32.[10] In fact, if you put it in Paul’s own words, Paul would say, “If I’m going to boast of anything, I’ll boast of my weakness. In fact, my departure from Damascus is a classic case in point.”

“Oh, how did you leave Damascus?”

“Well, I crawled through a window in the wall, I was let down in a basket, and then I ran for my life.”

Doesn’t have the sort of slickness to it of a traveling twenty-first-century preacher, does it? “And this evening we have the apostle Paul. He has most recently come from Damascus. We’re delighted to have him here, and he’s had a quite remarkable ministry in Damascus. And Paul, why don’t you just come up—I know you’re going to be preaching later—but why don’t you just come up and tell us about some of the powerful impact and dramatic things, you know, that you finished up with in Damascus?” And then he comes up and looks the crowd in the face and says, “Well, frankly, it wasn’t like that at all. I crawled out through a hole in the wall, I was let down in a basket, and I had to run like the dickens for my life.” And then the worship leader has to come back and try and get the thing cranked up again, ’cause the people are going, “Who wants to listen to somebody like that, for crying out loud! We came for power! We came for influence! We came for impact! Not to hear somebody who’s crawling away under cover of darkness!”

Hey, be honest: the average Sunday night, after you’ve done your best, wouldn’t you like to crawl out through a window, be let down in a basket, and run for your life? Well, there’s at least twelve of us that are honest enough to admit it.

Now, as we come to chapter 12… You say, “Well, finally you got to where you’re started, for goodness’ sake.” It reminds me of the guy who decided—he told his congregation he was going to preach through the whole Bible in his Sunday evening service. And he was going all the way through, and he got into the Prophets, and he came to Isaiah and he said, “Well, now we’ve come to Isaiah; what shall we do with him?” And somebody shouted out, “Well, he can have my seat, ’cause I’m going home!”

Now, as we come to chapter 12, we discover this most crucial area in which his detractors were challenging him—namely, in the realm of spiritual experiences. In the realm of spiritual experiences. If spiritual pride is ugly—and it always is—there is no place where it is uglier than when a man takes something that is a gift from God, an expression of his love to his child—a singular blessing, an intimate touch, a personal encouragement, a word spoken to his heart and to his soul—when a man takes that personal encounter with God and decides to turn it into a basis for braggadocio. And that is exactly what these super-apostles were doing.

And if ever there was an area in which Paul could have played the ace, it was in the realm of spiritual experiences. Because he had had the daddy of them all. He had had an encounter with God that was unparalleled outside of the transfiguration. He had been caught up into a dimension of God; it is so dramatic that he describes it in the third person, as a genuine expression of his humility. He wants to address it, but he doesn’t really want to get himself tangled up in it. And so he says, “There was a man, you know, that I know who was caught up into the third heaven. He was caught up into paradise. He saw things of which men should never, ever speak.”

Listen: when God touches your life, there will be things in your life you should just take to heaven with you. It’s nobody else’s business. It’s not for public display. It’s not to be paraded in a book. It’s not to be taken on Christian TV. It’s not to become the exposé of the week amongst the pastors. And Paul experiences this. And he could have silenced these super-apostles once and for all by simply trumping them at this moment and in this realm of spiritual experience. And he says, “But I didn’t do that,” and he explains why, and the clarity is quite pressing, is it not? Verse 6: “I refrain”—why?—“so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say.”

Brethren, one of the great snares of pastoral ministry is right here in 2 Corinthians 12:6. For the great temptation for me, at least, is to want the very reverse of what Paul says there—that I’m quite happy when people think more of me than by my words, or my life, or my example I give credence to their assessments. You see, it is the Day that will bring our lives and ministries to light, isn’t it? It is the Day that will bring it to light. For on that day, when all shadows are removed and when all comparisons are obliterated in the searing light of the glory of Christ, what you and I have built with will be found then to be either gold and silver and precious stones or wood and hay and stubble.[11]

“So,” says Paul, “the reason that I don’t play the ace here is because I don’t want anyone to think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say.” Again I say to you that any genuine experience of God is his gift of love to us, his children, and provides us with no basis for self-exaltation.

Paul’s Thorn in the Flesh

Now, it is then in that context that he comes to theologize this thorn in the flesh. It’s not my purpose this evening to wrestle with the nature of the thorn in the flesh. Enough of you have done that at seminary and in your studies, and frankly, you weren’t any better off by the time you finished your paper than when you started.

What I do believe we can say with a measure of conviction is that the thorn in Paul’s flesh was something physical and that it was a source of both regular and intense discomfort. And he was to discover in this the truth that he was giving under the influence of the Spirit in Romans 8, where he says, “And … in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose,”[12] so that he is forced, then, to take his own theological understanding of the sovereignty of God and bring it to bear upon his experience here that he refers to as a thorn in the flesh. Because he knows that his Father is so concerned about his servant—that he will be able to say with integrity, “I have fought the fight, I have kept the faith, I have finished the race, and now there is in store for me a crown of righteousness”[13]—God is so concerned that Paul will be able to say that, mean it, and experience it that he brings into this man’s life circumstances that become the very messengers of Satan so as to prevent him from becoming out of balance in relationship to the wonders that God has bestowed upon him.

In other words, Father knows best. He picks up his child and embraces him. He gathers him up into his arms. He allows him to see insights into his character and his purposes such as are unspeakable. And the same Father who has gathered his servant up in this way is the Father who, when the servant comes on three memorable occasions and says, “O Father, would you remove this thorn from me?” says, “No.” Why? Well, he tells us. “If I take this away, Paul, you’re never going to learn the principle: the strength of weakness.”

Any genuine experience of God is his gift of love to us, his children, and provides us with no basis for self-exaltation.

It’s “a messenger of Satan.” What does that mean? Well, I think it means at least this: that it became a basis for the Evil One’s insinuations—in the same way as weakness in our lives becomes the basis for the Evil One’s insinuations, doesn’t it? He comes to us and he says, you know, “If you were just a quieter person than you are, you would be a lot more useful. If you didn’t have this dreadful proclivity for x or for y”—and we’re not here talking about sin. “You know, if you were far more vocal and not so quiet…” To another he says, “If you were far quieter and not so vocal…” “If I wasn’t so weak, if I wasn’t so this, if I wasn’t so that…”

What, do you think your Father doesn’t know? He didn’t gather you together as a pile of sludge. You’re not a chance group of molecules flung together as a piece of humanity. Your DNA was fixed by a creator God who put your nose on the way he wants it. You may not think it’s good, but he loves it! And I don’t want to mention your nose in particular, because some of you’ll go home and start looking in the mirror. It was just an illustration. Relax! You’re not in charge, anyway.

So the insinuations of the Evil One are, “Why you, Paul? Why did you get the thorn? Why would God allow this in your life, Paul? Don’t you think if you didn’t have it, you’d be a lot more useful than you are?” That must have rubbed Paul up for sure. He comes repeatedly, he comes specifically, to God; he asks him to remove it. It’s got a kind of garden of Gethsemane ring to it: he goes three times, as Christ prays in the garden, you remember, three times, “If you are willing, let this cup pass from me.”[14] Paul goes three times: “God, if you’re willing, I’d be glad to be out of this. I’d be glad to be free of this.” And then the wonderful answer: “My grace is sufficient for you, Paul. My power is made perfect in your weakness.”

Listen to The Message paraphrase of this again: “Once I heard that, I was glad to let it happen. I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift. It was a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness. Now I take limitations in [my] stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size.” See, we need these things to cut us down to size, don’t we? “To keep me from becoming conceited beyond surpassing rectitude, there was given me this.” “And so,” he says, “the weaker I get, the stronger I become.”[15]

I don’t know if I’m close to this. I would like to be close to it. I feel that when I read these verses in 2 Corinthians 12, I’ve just, as it were, turned a page in a gigantic atlas of God’s disclosure, and I’m looking at areas of geography that are alien to me. Oh, I’ve used the verse with my congregation when they’ve found themselves struggling. I’ve offered it to them, and then done it with integrity, because it is the truth of God’s Word, and God by his Spirit may bring it to bear upon their lives to their great help and encouragement. But there is a great danger that we who offer the Bread of Life to others find ourselves starving to death. That we’re introducing people to areas of spiritual geography in which we ourselves have never walked. That we’re on the edge of a great ocean of God’s grace, and all we’ve ever done is take our socks off and paddle in the very fringes of it. And there is something about our lives that is yet unfinished and untouched.

And it may be that in a night like this, at a conference like this, that God comes to us to say, “You know, my dear pastor, you’ve been struggling here for so long to try and let everybody else know that you’ve got it taped, that you’re strong enough to handle it, that you’re in control of the operation. But you and I both know you’re not. Would you not simply embrace your weakness and find in me your strength?” For the alternative is to embrace our supposed strength and to live in the realm of phenomenal weakness.

In the eighteenth century, [John Berridge] said, “A christian never falls asleep in the fire or in the water, but grows drowsy in the sunshine.”[16] And yet we love the sunshine, don’t we? Everyone in Cleveland always moans about the weather. They don’t know how bad it would be to live in Glasgow, Scotland. “Oh, there’s not many sunny days here, you know.” It’s fine. Besides, when it’s always sunshine, you only have desert. And yet we seek the sunshine, don’t we? We run away from the very trials that are the means of blessing. We cover over the very weaknesses that God chooses to use as the epitome of making us useful in his kingdom. Have you ever considered the possibility that the thing that you have isolated as your most significant weakness is, under God, the key to your most essential usefulness?

You take the life of Chuck Colson, for example. Georgetown University. High grades in law school. Captain in the Marines. Most significant place in the office as the general counsel to the Nixon administration. The hatchet man. The guy who was on the receiving end of direct phone calls from Gandhi and from leaders all around the world, who could pick up his Rolodex and phone every leader of the Western world and beyond. And yet what was it that God used to forge in his life Prison Fellowship and the impact into the countless lives of hundreds of thousands of people? What was it? His law degree? His strength? His brilliance? No. It was the fact that he ended up as a con. And out of weakness came the strength! Oh, we understand that. We just don’t want to live it.

Beware Strength, Embrace Weakness

Now let me finish with two words of application.

Application number one: let us beware, brethren, of the dangers that come with being strong, being thought strong, or thinking ourselves strong.

You remember Nebuchadnezzar stands on the parapet there in Daniel 4, and he says, “Is this not the great Babylon [that] I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?”[17] And it’s only a matter of weeks before the people in his entourage are looking out in the backyard and are saying, “Is that Nebuchadnezzar down there, or is that my imagination? He looks to me like he is on all fours. What in the world is he doing?”

“I saw him this afternoon,” said another, “and I think, frankly, he was eating grass!”

Someone else said, “Well, I didn’t want to get too close to him, but it looked to me that his back was covered over with feathers. He looked like an eagle or a big buzzard or something.”

Someone else said, “Don’t let him shake your hand, because his nails are as long as the claws of an eagle.”

How did he get there? Because God won’t share his glory with anybody else. And you remember when he says, “And then I lifted up my eyes to heaven, and my sanity was restored. And I praised the God of glory.”[18]

The danger of strength. Beware it.

Have you ever considered the possibility that the thing that you have isolated as your most significant weakness is, under God, the key to your most essential usefulness?

You find it in Uzziah in 2 Chronicles 26, in the King James I think it is, or some translation: “He was gloriously helped, until he became strong. But when he became strong, he grew proud to his own destruction.”[19] His point of greatest usefulness became his moment of deepest weakness. And failing to recognize the weakness of being strong, he embraced his strength. And when he was gone, nobody remembered that he’d become king at the age of sixteen. Nobody remembered his military expansion. Nobody remembered his ability to settle the kingdom and to give territory on all fronts. All they said about him was, “He had leprosy.” “He had leprosy.” Guys, you and I can spend twenty-six years of our lives establishing a reputation and throw it away in less than twenty-six minutes by embracing strength.

And finally, if we need to beware the dangers of strength, let us then embrace the strength of weakness.

Don’t you love Joseph? I’m not referring to the Joseph this evening; I’m referring to the other Joseph, the one in the Old Testament. (But we do love this Joseph, and we love the other one; it’s a great name.) Pharaoh comes to him and he says, “I had a dream, and no one can interpret it. But I[’ve] heard it said of you that when you hear a dream you can interpret it.”[20] Moment of discovery here. What is he about to say? “You came to the right man, Pharaoh! I’m your guy. Yes sir. I did a number of dreams last week, and just let me know what it is, and I’m your dream man. [Sings:] Dream… dream, dream, dream…”

Well, you’re gonna have to go and read your Bibles tonight to remind yourselves what it was he said, but this is what came first out of his mouth: he said, “I cannot do it.” That’s what he said! And then he said, “But God will give Pharaoh the answer.”[21] How? Through Joseph. But he couldn’t do it. But he did it! How? Because he knew he couldn’t do it; then he did it! The reason that many of us are not doing it is because we think we can do it. It is when we acknowledge that we can’t do it, then God may do it. We don’t know what God would do, if ever we flattened ourselves out on the carpet in our study and cried out to God, “God, I made a hash of it. Seventy-two weeks in a row, my tongue sticks to my mouth. I don’t know how to do this. I am pathetic at this!”

Most of us are not there. You’re reading all that stupid stuff about the openness of God, and you think that God is standing on the parapet of heaven waiting to find out whether your sermon’s gonna be any good or not. You never take God by surprise. Never! That is an old-fashioned heresy in a newfangled disguise. It is nothing new under the sun. It doesn’t work in the life of Jesus, and if it doesn’t work in the life of Jesus, it doesn’t work. That’s an aside.

And finally, the prayer of J. No, not the prayer of Jabez. The prayer of Jehoshaphat. You can go read it for yourself in 2 Chronicles 20; if you didn’t have plans for your quiet time, it might be a nice place just to wrap this up.

It’s been a time of great reformation and revival as a result of the leadership of Jehoshaphat, but now the warring armies are on the fringes. He’s made certain decisions in relationship to that, and he is now confronted by the vastness of the army. And you go there to his prayer, and he begins, “O God, are you not the sovereign God who sets up the nations? Are you not the God who from heaven rules in everything? Now, God, now that I have established who you are, let me acknowledge who I am and where I am in front of these people.”[22] And this is what he says: “We have no power.” Then he follows it up with “We do not know what to do.”[23]

I love this! I want to jump up and down on my bed when I read this. Because this is, like, the purpose statement of our church: “We have no power, and we don’t know what to do. There’s not enough seminars for us to go to. There’s not enough strategies out there for us to try and find. We’ve read them all. We saw this stuff. But Lord, we’ve got no power, and we don’t know what to do. But our eyes are upon you.”[24] That’s it! Now we’ve got a chance.

And then when you read on, what happens? This is what is says: “[And] Jehoshaphat bowed with his face to the ground, and all the people of Judah and Jerusalem fell down in worship before the Lord.”[25] When will our people fall down and worship before the Lord? When we bow down with our faces to the ground. When will I bow down with my face to the ground? When I know that I must. When I know that I have to. But as long as I have a modicum of belief in my own abilities, as long as I have a conviction about my capacity for getting around it and getting through, then I will stay on my feet when I should fall on my face.

Loved ones, if you think about all of the initiatives of the last two decades in this fantastic country—wonderful initiatives, striking things, for which we thank God—can you imagine if, permeating all of that, there was to be across our countries, as the very hallmark of pastoral ministry, pastors who bowed down with their faces to the ground, and their people followed them?

See, at the end of the day, the lasting memory and legacy of Jehoshaphat is not that he was a great man, although he was; not that he was a good man, though he was that too. The lasting legacy of Jehoshaphat is that he was a shepherd of God’s people who realized that there was strength in weakness.

That explains why God chose the weak and not the strong. That reinforces the fact that he gives strength to the weak, and to those who have no power he increases might.[26] That is why he puts his treasure into the breakable pottery of our fragile lives. That is why even though those Christians that we admire most for their godliness and for their gifts are just as much “jars of clay”[27] as you and me. “And now let the weak say, ‘I am strong.’”[28]

Father, hear the cries of our hearts, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

[1] Graham Kendrick, “Knowing You (All I Once Held Dear)” (1993).

[2] Philippians 3:8 (paraphrased from the KJV).

[3] 2 Corinthians 10:18 (MSG).

[4] 1 Corinthians 4:3–4 (paraphrased).

[5] 2 Timothy 2:15 (KJV). Emphasis added. See Elisabeth Elliot, The Shadow of the Almighty: The Life and Testament of Jim Elliot (1958; repr., New York: HarperCollins, 1989), 43.

[6] 2 Corinthians 11:17–18 (MSG).

[7] See Galatians 6:17.

[8] 2 Corinthians 11:22 (paraphrased).

[9] 2 Corinthians 11:30 (NIV 1984).

[10] See Acts 9:8–25.

[11] See 1 Corinthians 3:12–15.

[12] Romans 8:28 (NIV 1984).

[13] 2 Timothy 4:7–8 (paraphrased).

[14] Luke 22:42 (paraphrased). See also Matthew 26:39; Mark 14:36.

[15] 2 Corinthians 12:9–10 (MSG).

[16] John Berridge to Samuel Wilks, Everton, August 16, 1774, in The Works of the Rev. John Berridge, ed. Richard Whittingham (London: Simpkin, Marshall, and Company, 1838), 396.

[17] Daniel 4:30 (NIV 1984).

[18] Daniel 4:34 (paraphrased).

[19] 2 Chronicles 26:15–16 (paraphrased from the KJV).

[20] Genesis 41:15 (NIV 1984).

[21] Genesis 41:16 (NIV 1984).

[22] 2 Chronicles 20:6–12 (paraphrased).

[23] 2 Chronicles 20:12 (NIV 1984).

[24] 2 Chronicles 20:12 (paraphrased).

[25] 2 Chronicles 20:18 (NIV 1984).

[26] See Isaiah 40:29.

[27] 2 Corinthians 4:7 (NIV 1984).

[28] Henry Smith, “Give Thanks” (1978).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.